Last night I played through the first hour-ish of both Dishonored and Retro City Rampage. Fun was had all around. Still, this lethal cocktail of digitally-delivered-nostalgia and surprise-AAA-hit-of-the-holidays has unexpectedly opened a can of worms I can now never close. A flurry of considerations surrounding the contrast between these two games has been forced into my attention. As each universe unfolded its rules, discoveries, and learning curves, the stark difference became impossible to ignore. The price-points, the proverbial packaging, and of course, the pure joy of playing; they all point to one conclusion.
I am done with AAA games.
To be clear, this is not a slight on Dishonored. I am definitely liking the game thus far, and it has succeeded as far as peaking my interest. The problem is that, now that digital distribution and indie games have become a movement, the silhouette of the AAA game has become somewhat defined. Before, when there was no other product to stand next to, the commercial release was just a video game, plain and simple. With indie games having the freedom to forsake formula, the template that forms the AAA game is clear. The sad fact is that most AAA games are not afforded the freedom to escape this template, and all their innovation must be exercised within the established framework. Dishonored is a game that wants so badly to provide you with something new, but there is only so much it's allowed to accomplish.
I want to explore what makes Dishonored unique. I want to toy with its "Chaos" system, which uses your tendency to sneak or kill as an input to affect the condition of the game world. More kills means more guards, more rats, and more plague. However, hours of exposition, walking from checkpoint to checkpoint, and accomplishing pedestrian tutorial tasks stand in between the player and the core of the game. The idea of tactical freedom is almost enforced onto the player, but a lot of the freedom that Dishonored affords the player is illusory. I am free to choke out an NPC, at the consequence of failing the game, and restarting from my last save. NPCs ask me if I am ready to move on to a new locale, but the choice to stay behind begets absolutely nothing, apart from the odd coin or potion here or there. Furthermore, the game is a unique sum of familiar parts; certain elements are immediately recognizable from earlier games. The easiest comparison to draw is Bioshock, from which Dishonored borrows it's loot system, it's magic system, and it's central agenda as a narrative driven, tactically-open FPS set in a kind of both-past-y-and-future-y-at-the-same-time alternate reality.
My time with Dishonored begs the question, "what is this game about?" Is it about the story and setting, an oppressive alternate reality which beneath its surface is not so different from our own? Is it about the player, who's character is examined through the exercised freedom to kill or remain unseen? Recently, I've been feeling more and more like the condition of AAA games is that they have no idea what they're about. They'd like to be about something visceral; they'd like to communicate something to us, but that message is lost amidst a wash of familiarity.
I think price point has a lot to do with the homogenization of the commercial game. Because we as consumers can only afford so many AAA games a year, games like Dishonored have to jump through a number of hoops in order to prove their worth as a must-have purchase. Things like Hollywood voiceover talent and multiplayer modes have become staples of the industry, whereas the creativity and the courage to do something different has become risky business. And now this has gotten so bad that a game like Dishonored, which provides a new-ish and interesting framework for the player, but never requires the player to perform an action that hasn't been learned from an older AAA game, has become a RISK IP!? However interesting its art direction and however novel its handful of spells can be, I cannot honestly say that Dishonored does anything risky at all.
For all these reasons, when I shut off Dishonored for the night, I knew that for a part of me, there was no going back. Not once I had experienced all the vicarious joy of Brian Provinciano's excitement that oozes from every pixel in Retro City Rampage. Then I finally once and for all knew that I had no reason to ever pay $60 for a game ever again. Not when a $15 game is afforded the luxury of complete freedom. Not when a designer can sell you a dream come true. Not when I can once again play a game and feel like I am having a conversation with a human being, not being told a fairy tale by a screenwriter. This is it; the point of no return. The titans are finished with me, because I no longer want what they have. I'm sick of looking for the sliver of innovation hidden in all the layers of the same old song and dance. I've defended these games for way too long, saying shit like, "yeah, but the [whatever system] was really cool." I'd rather play a 5 second game that looks like Adventure and is built out of pure creativity, than some 40 hour Hollywood-ass game that wants me to do the same shit I've been doing for a decade.
So, here's my little personal revolution against the AAA monster. Next time a commercial game is coming down the pipe with some halfway interesting setting or concept that catches my attention, I am going to take the $60 I would've spent on it, and I am going to burn it. No, just kidding. I am going to take that $60, on release day for whatever AAA game, and I'm going to buy 5 or 6 indie games with it instead. I don't care how many Call of Duty and NBA 2K games the monster publishers have planned; they are fighting a losing battle, and I'm sick of playing for their team.
In the words of Eddie Murphy/Janet Jackson:
What have you done for me lately?
Did you like Dead Space? We've got a Dead Space threequel coming out... with co-op... and...
What have you done for me lately?
Well, Farcry 3 has like tigers and shit now...
What have you done for me lately?
GTA5 is our largest sandbox to date and we're bringing back...
What have you done for me lately?
I've spent the last decade popping off critical-hit-head-shots, snapping to cover, pressing shoulder buttons to throw grenades, completing mundane fetch quests for NPCs, crouching to perform a silent kill, and watching the counter on my in-the-distance checkpoint tick down.
To me, the most boring tendency of commercial games is the blanket use of violent conflict as a primary means of “problem solving.”
“Hey, protagonist. We’ve got a problem. You’re just the guy for the job.”
“Sure thing! What can I do for you?”
“BLOW THIS SHIT UP!”
“KILL THESE GUYS!”
Defend this point, and kill these guys until this timer runs out, then run to this point and kill all these guys on the way. Chase that guy in a car and kill him. Snipe that guy from afar.
The problem I see is that the games that are guilty of this generic brand of gameplay are rarely about violence, they are just using violence as a sort of figurative puzzle solution.
It’s a tricky distinction to make. Think about the Portal franchise. The games are top notch all round, but for now we will totally discount the amazing sound design, writing, etc., and focus on the core gameplay mechanic: the portal and portal gun. In Portal, there are no pickups, upgrades, skills, etc., there is only a portal gun (a totally novel and unique gameplay concept), and an environment with which you can interface. That’s it. This is a game about power unchecked and technology run amuck, and as the player, Portal gives you a taste of that. With a portal gun in your hand, you have quantum access, the superhuman ability to travel across time and space; an ability the game beautifully balances with an adversary who is literally everywhere at once.
Looking at your everyday “shoot-em-up, take over territory, complete missions for factions” open world games, we see a totally different species. These are robust, with tons of different gameplay scenarios, and control schemes particular to those scenarios, menus within menus, skill trees, currency systems, etc. So what are these games about? It can be hard to tell. However they all seem to agree on one thing: a blanket game design that employs a variety of scenarios the player is already familiar with.
The problem here is that the blanket mentality often works against the cohesion of the game; or put another way, the lack of focus in these games often works to underemphasize the strength or novelty of the central game concept, and instead showcases what the player is comfortable with.
Going back to “violent conflict,” Assassin’s Creed is a game that is purportedly about assassins. This being considered, AC is a perfect opportunity to make a game about violence, rather than employing it as a sort laborious in between task. The violence committed against the corrupt church and officials could raise moral of the people. Murder of innocent citizens could generate a civilian fear of the protagonist. A messy assassination could begin to reveal your identity, or create panic, while a clean job may not even affect the awareness of the population at all.
These are all concepts which place violence and “assassinations” at the center of the game, making every “violent” action a significant one, which actively affects your experience as the player. Instead, AC opts to focus on roof running, a silly sci-fi plot, and a generic open mission structure, all while reducing assassinations to a one button affair, and instead emphasizing button mash close quarters combat. To me, the entire franchise has been a huge missed opportunity to make, not just a commercially successful game, but a great one. This is for one simple reason: the game does not know what it does well, or put another way, why it is fun.
A lot of these games are guilty of this, but not always for the same reason. Mercenaries 2 is a game that is a blast to play and features a novel air support system that enables the player to order air strikes or equipment drops on a whim; however, it took me a couple hours to even realize this, as the game held my hand through several generic run and gun missions, complete with cheeky dialogue and stereotypical gangster/capitalist/revolutionary characters, and tried tirelessly to convince me that it was as cool as GTA, before it even handed over the core gameplay concept. The game would be better without the longwinded exposition because it is not what the game does well, or why it is cool; Mercenaries 2 is awesome because I can order a tactical nuke on the headquarters of a petroleum corporation. The shame is that Mercenaries 2 actually hinders the player from finding this out.
Borderlands, on the other hand, knows exactly why it’s cool: it’s addictive and complex gun and loot system. Every step of the way, the loot system, and the combat are the stars of the show. The narrative is present, but non-obtrusive, and if a gameplay concept doesn’t exist to bolster the combat or loot system, it simply does not exist. To me, Borderlands is a masterful exercise in concise game design.
Games like Borderlands, an open world game with a unique identity, and the resolve to showcase it, are sadly few and far between. Open world games too often err on the side of wide appeal and sales, and what they bring to the table is lost as a result, awash a sea of familiarity. Do we really want these similarities inserted into all of our commercial games, as a sort of transitional tool? Is there one game you've played in the last decade wherein you weren't able to guess at least half of the controls or puzzle solutions? Is that really what makes these games successful or, more importantly, what makes us like them? I doubt it. I see it as a fear of failure, most likely on the publisher's side, resulting in a list of "must have" features being shoved down a developer's throat.
Anyways, that is my brick of rant about open world games, a genre that I love, but one that is an unfortunate victim of it’s own success, and is subsequently “template”-ed and uniform as a result. I’m extremely hopeful for expansion of the genre, beyond the GTA-clone, and extremely excited for the developments that are happening now, like the mind-blowing-ly amazing Minecraft, which is one of the few open world games that does not employ violent conflict as the player’s main means of interaction.
With a grand total of about 6 years of development, 800 team members involved, nearly 100 million dollars spent, and over 12 million copies sold, the numbers speak for themselves. I cannot emphasize enough that Red Dead Redemption is an outstanding technical achievement in nearly every field it tackles, and it sets a new bar for immersion in games. However, the narrative that sits at the core of the game works to counter this unprecedented immersion every step of the way. Ay, there's the rub.
John Marston is a kind of mutant hybrid videogame protagonist. He is equal parts Link and Commander Shepard. He is half pre-scripted character who exists to tell a pre-written story, and half moral canvas who exists as a vessel for the whims of the player. The halfway nature of our protagonist drives a wedge between the intended narrative and the player's total experience with the game. This rift between script and player choice is mostly apparent in the game's Honor system, which assigns a positive or negative moral value to actions like saving a whore from a drunk guy with a knife (good!), or dragging an innocent woman from your horse, then tying her up and leaving her on the train tracks (bad!). NPCs will then either trash-talk you or greet you like a hero when you ride into town, depending on your current Honor. While the game world of Red Dead goes to lengths to ensure that I feel the weight of my actions around me, Marston himself seems constantly unaware of his actions, no matter how separate from the script they become. MY Marston rides into town greeted by the scared whispers and idle threats of the NPCs I've tormented in the past, while ROCKSTAR's Marston kicks in moments later during a cutscene to offer some friendly neighborhood help with whatever stupid errand needs a-doin'. (I stole that analogy from this excellent episode of HAWP)
For me, this separation between Rockstar's and my own very distinct stories for John Marston unraveled the campaign. As the differences between the two characters grew in number, I cared less and less about Marston's family or the inevitable quest that would have him face his dark past and answer for the deeds of his old life. After all, that wasn't the past for MY Marston. MY Marston was still committing local genocide over poker games. Disappointed with the story, I shlepped myself through the game's final act. While the few twists and turns towards the end were cool and novel, eliminating the few remaining members of Marston's old crew was strangely easy and anti-climactic, and the week in FarmVille that leads up to the game's admittedly epic finale was just straight up boring. The tragedy here is that there were about a million cool missed opportunities for incorporating unique player action into the game's story. Like I didn't just kill Ross as Jack Marston, I killed his wife too, because I was PISSED. And while that action may have enhanced my personal narrative I had designed for the protagonist, Jack Marston was none the wiser. He was unphased by the darkness that had just overtaken him. He remained the dopily heroic robot he always was.
But that's when it happened. Even though I was done with the campaign I only tepidly enjoyed, I could not stop playing Red Dead. There was always another bear to skin or another poker game to cheat my way through and shoot my way out of. It ended up being one of few recent games I've taken to 100% completion. I picked everyone of those stupid flowers.
As I milled it over, I realized that the disappointment I felt with Red Dead Redemption may not have been disappointment at all. It was more of a half fear and half excitement mutant hybrid. The fear was from the notion that the kind of videogames that I grew up on, games that were technically limited and leaned on narrative to turn rough polygons into emotional experiences, were being replaced by a new beast. A beast who's depth is born of its technical capacity. A beast who can create a compelling experience in the absence of a compelling narrative. The excitement was from the notion that Rockstar had touched on a new way to conceive of games. After all, the living world of Red Dead is something that reached universal appeal, making Marston a household name amongst nerds and their adolescent nephews alike. After Red Dead, I can begin to imagine a future where the videogames we buy become synonymous with the sprawling gameworlds contained within; Where the "open-worlds" that are slowly taking over our AAA market, become so dynamic and nearly-living, that the need to shoehorn in a singular narrative will be replaced by the freedom to seed any story the player can imagine. As the 12 year old niece of a friend put it, Red Dead Redemption is a place where "I can ride my horse around and nobody bothers me." And maybe that's all it has to be.